Commentary: Would attacking North Korea be 'just war?'

North Korea missiles Credit vchal Shutterstock CNA North Korean missiles. | vchal/Shutterstock

As North Korea continues to develop its nuclear arsenal, should the United States contemplate a pre-emptive strike?

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says the answer is yes. In a Wall Street Journal commentary this week, Bolton argued that because North Korea is working to finalize its ability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear warheads, the time to attack the rogue nation is now.
North Korea poses an imminent threat, he said, and it is necessary for the United States to "eliminate that threat."
Bolton took up a theory of pre-emptive defense developed by nineteenth-century Secretary of State Daniel Webster. The theory is that pre-emptive strikes are justified when a threat, in the words of Webster, is "instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation."

Bolton argued that in a nuclear age, a volatile enemy's possession of destructive weapons that can travel great distances in short periods of time requires a new way of thinking about pre-emptive strikes.

"Necessity in the nuclear and ballistic-missile age is simply different than in the age of steam," he wrote.
Bolton is right to argue that nuclear weapons are a significant factor in evaluating military action, but wrong in his conclusion. The threat of nuclear weapons should cause us to act with more caution, not less.
The Church has long urged caution when it comes to weapons development. The Second Vatican Council wrote in Gaudium et Spes, "Indeed, if the kind of instruments which can now be found in the armories of the great nations were to be employed to their fullest, an almost total and altogether reciprocal slaughter of each side by the other would follow."
Those words were written in 1965. Today, more than 50 years later, the truth they contain is even more apparent.
Rather than striking pre-emptively, Church teaching talks about legitimate military action in self-defense, and only when certain conditions are met. These conditions are outlined in the Catechism: "the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."
Bolton does not discuss what he means by a pre-emptive strike. But a look at the possibilities suggests that none of them meet the conditions laid out by the Church.
U.S. intelligence about North Korea is far from complete. Experts believe the regime has hidden key facilities of which we are not currently aware. As a result, any attempt to completely wipe out Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities lacks the "serious prospects of success" necessary to meet the Church's just war criteria.
A failed attempt at wiping out North Korea's nuclear capabilities – or any attempt to carry out a more limited attack on the key known facilities – would result in serious retaliation and likely mass casualties.
Bolton is right to be concerned about what comes next with North Korea.

There aren't easy answers on the Korean Peninsula. There will likely be no democracy uprising in Pyongyang. Dialogue with the country seems to be a fool's errand, with limited prospects for success.  Preemptively striking an unstable and unpredictable North Korea seems no more likely to succeed.

But more talk costs very little. War with a nuclear power we know very little about might cost a great deal more.

It feels unsatisfying to call for more talk, when talk, thus far, has accomplished nothing. Perhaps a pre-emptive strike might feel more satisfying. But the morality of such a decision should matter more than the temporary satisfaction of having done something.

We need more creativity, more patience, and more prayer for wisdom in North Korea before anyone concludes that war is the necessary path to lasting peace.

Michelle La Rosa is managing editor of Catholic News Agency.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.